Last year’s FIFA Club World Cup was all about Barcelona and Santos, Lionel Messi and Neymar. We all know how that turned out. (If you don’t, the champions of Europe wiped the floor with the champions of South America and a pair of goals from Messi bookended the 4-0 drubbing.)
The 2012 instalment of the tournament, which takes place this December, will have a rather different theme to it. Awaiting the South Americans are European Cup winners Chelsea, who lifted the trophy after surprisingly dispatching Barcelona in the semifinals and Bayern Munich in the final of the UEFA Champions League. They’ll be joined in Japan by one of Boca Juniors and Corinthians, who on Wednesday will contest the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final.
Both sides play a pragmatic, defense-first brand of football that contains little of the flair and flash so often associated with the South American game. No stereotypes here. Neither Boca Juniors, from Argentina capital Buenos Aires, or Corinthians, from Brazil’s most populous city Sao Paulo, would be at all out of place in the European club game—something Chelsea will surely discover six months from now.
But first things first. The Copa Libertadores can go to only one of Boca and Corinthians, and that the tournament (South America’s Champions League equivalent) came down to the pair of them is, in itself, something to get excited about. There are few clubs in world football as big as these two, few as popularly supported in their home countries.
Boca fans proudly refer their support as being “half plus one” (half of the population of Argentina plus one) and their trophy case contains an incredible 67 honours. In 2011 Brazilian firm BDO RCS named Corinthians the most valuable club in Brazil, and by extension, on the continent. In South America it simply doesn’t get any bigger than Boca-Corinthians.
Which is why it’s surprising that they haven’t met more often in the Libertadores, particularly in the final.
Boca Juniors and Corinthians have met just four times previously in competitive fixtures—twice in the 1991 Libertadores and twice again in the 2000 Copa Mercosur. In 1991 they were drawn together in the Round of 16 and Boca built up a 3-1 aggregate lead at La Bombonera before progressing on a 1-1 draw in the return leg at the Pacaembu. Nine years later in the Mercosur—a precursor to the Copa Sudamericana—Boca throttled Corinthians 3-0 in Buenos Aires before drawing the return match 2-2 in Sao Paulo.
Corinthians, it’s worth pointing out, have never beat Boca Juniors—something they’ll be looking to alter over the next 10 days.
Despite a winless start to the domestic season (hardly an unusual record for a side that goes deep in the Libertadores), Corinthians have progressed through each round of the competition with a sense of purpose and destiny and are now just two matches away from winning a first Libertadores in club history.
Manager Tite, who won the Sudamericana with Internacional in 2008, has built his side from the goal outwards. Corinthians allowed just 36 goals in 38 Brasileiro matches last season and in 25-year-old Cassio have a towering, late-blooming goalkeeper who was nothing short of immense against Santos in the semifinals.
So, too, was the defensive line of Alessandro, Fabio Santos, Leandro Castan and Chicao. The crucial goal of the tie came courtesy of Emerson just before the half-hour mark of the first-leg, and after serving a one-match suspension the well-travelled Qatar international will be available for Wednesday’s match at La Bombonera.
Boca, like Corinthians, also take particular pride in defense, and in that they are an embodiment of their manager, Julio Cesar Falcioni. Los Xeneizes conceded only six goals in 19 matches en route to winning the Apertura in February and, perhaps even more impressively, kept a high-octane Universidad de Chile side off the scoresheet over two legs in the Libertadores semifinals.
The return match in Santiago was Boca at their defensive best. Rolando Schiavi, Matias Caruzzo, Clemente Rodriguez and Facundo Roncaglia were immense in their protection of Agustin Orion’s goal and allowed only six La U shots to hit the target despite their hosts’ dominance in possession.
Thanks to a pair of goals in the first leg at La Bombonera—courtesy of Santiago Silva and Juan Sanchez Mino—Boca Juniors had some credit on account in the return match and, once comfortable in Santiago, stifled La U out of the tie. Home-field advantage will be similarly vital when they face Corinthians in the final.
To a viewer accustomed to European club football the 2012 Copa Libertadores final won’t appear all that unfamiliar. Concentration and pragmatism will be the themes of the tie, and what goals are scored will come quickly, from set-pieces or instinctive moves into space, rather than protracted build-ups. In that, Chelsea will find a rather recognisable foe at the Club World Cup.
Corinthians player to watch: Ralf. Perhaps no player personifies the current Corinthians side more than the 28-year-old defensive midfielder. After hopping around some smaller clubs earlier in his career Ralf joined Corinthians in 2010 and quickly found a perfect match for his skill-set. He has since earned four caps for Brazil and was one of the top players in the division as Corinthians won the championship in 2011.
Boca Juniors player to watch: Juan Roman Riquelme. It says a lot about his influence, and the influence of the traditional number-10 role in Argentine football, that Riquelme is permitted by the austere Falcioni to shirk the defensive duties that everyone else in the squad must adhere to. That said, if there is to be a bit of magic in the Libertadores final it will probably come from the 34-year-old’s imagination. One of the most memorable moments of the competition to date came in the dying seconds of Boca’s quarterfinal second-leg with Fluminense when a bit of Riquelme genius led to Santiago Silva’s late winner.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer